Category Archives: Arizona rodeo history

Arizona’s Agua Fria Valley, An Early Post Office

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

www.JanMacKellCollins.com

Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

The expansive Agua Fria area encompasses a much of central Arizona, spanning from north Phoenix all the way up to Dewey some miles east of Prescott. Although much of it now lies in the Agua Fria National Monument, there was once a settlement in what is now known as the upper valley in vicinity of Dewey, Humboldt, Mayer and Cordes Junction. This was formally known as Agua Fria Valley.

Agua Fria Valley’s history begins in 1864 with King Woolsey’s Agua Fria Ranch. In March of that year, a group of fifty Pinal Indians attacked Woolsey’s cattle, and the area continued to be plagued by Indian attacks. During August of 1867, one settler was killed during another skirmish as another raid focused on Nathan and Ed Bowers’ new ranch and flour mill just south of today’s Dewey. When stage station operator Darrel Duppa was badly wounded by Apaches in 1872, the military finally stepped in. Lieutenant Max Weisendorf, twenty one enlisted men of “Troop A” and citizen John F. Townsend of Lower Agua Fria Valley had “another battle and killed seventeen Indians” according to area newspapers.

Official Anglo settlements at the community of Agua Fria Valley proper began in 1873, after a “shorter and better” wagon road was built from Prescott. First mention of a woman’s presence came in an 1874 news article when “Mr. Ed. G. Peck and wife, of Agua Fria Valley, arrived in [Prescott] yesterday and left for home today. Ed said that himself and brother farmers have a splendid prospect for crops.” The Agua Fria Valley post office opened in the spring of 1875. Dennis Marr, whose ranch was in the vicinity of today’s Kachina Place and Highway 69, was the first postmaster. Within a few months, mail was delivered weekly.

Other pioneers of the valley included Angeline Mitchell and George Edward Brown. Brown had started his ranch near Mayer in 1877. In 1881 he was elected to the Arizona Territorial Legislature, and would go on to act as deputy sheriff under sheriffs Ed Bowers and William “Bucky” O’Neill. Angeline, meanwhile, occupied her time with documenting local history and collecting mineral specimens.

In 1877, Henry Spaulding became postmaster of Agua Fria Valley. In 1884 the Spauldings also rented a room to a petite school teacher named Annie Allen, who taught the children around the community. One of her pupils was Sharlot Hall, whose family had arrived three years before. Sharlot lived at her family’s Orchard Ranch near Agua Fria Valley for much of her life. A lover of history, she was appointed as Arizona’s Territorial Historian in 1909. In 1928 she opened a museum in the territorial Governor’s mansion in Prescott, known today as Sharlot Hall Museum.

Beginning in 1889, Marr’s Ranch in Agua Fria Valley hosted the first of several rodeo roundups to appease the local cattle industry. A proposal also was made in 1890 to establish the new Mineral Belt Railroad to Phoenix, which would run through the valley. The railroad never came to fruition, perhaps because of the weather which could bring deep snows in winter, catastrophic floods in spring and fall, and very hot days in summer. On a day in July 1890 for instance, the temperature soared to 114 degrees in the shade. Rancher Martin Conrad, who was helping A.C. Burmister bale hay, dropped dead in the heat.

In spite of its expansive land area, Agua Fria Valley was a tight—knit community. In 1892, a “Grand Ball and Supper” was held for the entire community at Fred Hiltenbrant’s Station for just two dollars per person. By 1893, the McCrum Sampling & Milling Company was processing ore for area mines. By then, however, other small towns were popping up everywhere. The Agua Fria Valley post office fell out of use and subsequently closed later that year.

Slowly but surely, Agua Fria Valley’s residents began moving off. Settlers Nathan and Ed Bowers sold their ranch in 1895. Pioneers also were dying off, including Richard “Uncle Dick” Thomas, who had homesteaded in the valley back in 1876. Thomas and his wife Ellen, aka “Aunt Nell”, kept a “a well—known road station” at their home. When he died in 1902, his obituary noted that “‘Uncle Dick’ and ‘Aunt Nell’ are fresh in the memories of many a tired and hungry traveler.” Most fittingly, Sharlot Hall recited a poem entitled “The End of the Trail” at Thomas’s services. Ellen “Aunt Nell” Thomas returned to Michigan, and the ranch was sold.

Even as its residents continued moving away, farming remained a primary focus at Agua Fria Valley. “Residents of Agua Fria Valley report the most prolific corn and hay crops there in many years,” reported Arizola’s Oasis newspaper in 1909. “Thomas E. Reynolds, who purchased what is known to pioneers as the ‘Old Dick Thomas’ ranch, returned from the ranch Saturday with a sample of sorghum the stalk measuring ten feet, ten inches.” Today cattle and crops continue flourishing in Agua Fria Valley, but on a smaller scale than in the old days. As for the post office, nothing is left and the area consists of modern housing and businesses.

Here’s to the Ladies of Prescott Who Rode Fast Horses

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

When it was first recorded in 1884, the term “cowgirl” referred to a female rancher or even a rancher’s daughter. In time, this single word also came to mean a female cowpuncher, and soon also applied to the resolute and hardy women who rode the rodeo circuit. In the Victorian west, a woman riding rodeo must have seemed appalling to some. But those in the game knew that gals coming from ranching backgrounds, where they worked with horses and cattle daily, were tough gals indeed.

In time, rodeo women became celebrities in their own right. They were vindicated heroes to other women, and men found them both pretty and impressive. During the 1880’s, during a surge of determined western estrogen, more and more women entered the arena at fairs, round ups and shows. Seven gals in particular watched as Prescott, Arizona held its first-ever rodeo in 1888. The following year, when promoters decided to add a women’s “contest”, they were elated.

Those first seven female contestants in 1889 were all locals, who had been born and raised on area ranches. They were “Mesdames T. Atto, Celia Book, D.W. Thorne and Misses Mollie Baker, Minnie Bargeman, Mary Boblett and Lizzie Dillon.” The women would perform in a single competition. A beautiful saddle would go to the winner; her runner-up would receive a fine bridle.

The event took place at the “Driving Park” in the afternoon of the rodeo’s last day. It was Friday, and crowds made their way to see this novel attraction. A cowboy tournament was scheduled too, but the “ladies riding” proved far more appealing. “Greater interest was manifested in the latter than in any of the previous days’ sports of the track,” noted the Prescott Journal-Miner, “every available vehicle and animal in the town being pressed into service to carry passengers, business of all kinds being closed for the afternoon.”

No doubt some betting money was exchanged as the cowgirls took their places. Seven judges—George Augustine, Orick Jackson, Frank Kuehne, Juan Leibas, George L. Merritt, James Rourke and Jeff Young—assembled to watch the contest. How it all went was not recorded by local papers, but the crowd was surely amazed and amused all at the same time. Lizzie Dillon won the saddle and Mary Boblett, a cousin to then-budding historian Sharlot Hall, received the bridle.

They say that despite it’s success, no other “ladies riding” contests took place at Prescott until the 1920’s. Lizzie Dillon married Tom Turner in 1891 and settled down. Likewise for Mary Boblett, who married Amos Hall in 1890, and Minnie Bargeman, who married that same year. Notably, lots of women back then competed no more than once, settling into domestic life with a satisfied smirk on their faces. Others, however, pursued rodeo as a career and did quite well.

But it was not forgotten that those seven brazen and talented women had busted right into the rodeo industry, and their courage inspired others. Soon, trick riders—including amazing women who dove horses into water from high in the air—were all the rage. It could be said that trick shooter Annie Oakley was truly one of America’s first sweethearts. And, their gussied up and colorful outfits inspired men to start adding shiny buttons and polished accouterments to their outfits, too.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances, circuses and other events featuring equestrian performances were soon featuring women like Mabel Strickland (pictured) and Tad Lucas, dubbed “Rodeo’s First Lady”. During the early 1900’s, heads turned when Fannie Sperry rode “slick”, the same as the men did. Slick riding consisted of tying the stirrups together under the horse’s belly and sticking your feet in for better balance in the saddle. It could also be dangerous, since it was harder for the rider to kick free if the horse went down.

Prescott’s rodeo cowgirls of 1889 may be in the past, but plenty of other ladies have saddled up in the time since. These include such champions as three-time winner Shirley Davis during the 1960’s, rodeo veteran Alexa Allred during the 70’s, Rose Webb in the 80’s, Twila Haller during the 90’s and most recently, Sheri Sinor-Estrada. These and many others have been recipients of cash prizes and shiny buckles, and there will be more.